Participant Observer

Book cover
Catholic Moral Theology in the United Statesby By Charles E. CurranGeorgetown Univ. Press. 353p $26.95 (paperback)

Charles E. Curran is a highly regarded theologian whose works have been widely read and appreciated by colleagues for nearly 50 years. He is also well known beyond the academy; in the best sense, he has been a “man of the church,” who has not shied away from controversy when he thought the good of the Christian community was at stake. For both reasons Curran has been a key figure in the story of Catholic moral theology in this country since the Second Vatican Council.

In the preface of this history, Curran indicated that he would write as a “participant observer” and that he would “strive to be objective in reporting and assessing” theological issues about which he has his own well-developed positions. He has done so very well. He neither over- nor understates his own significant influence on the discipline.


Curran’s book is divided into 10 chapters. The first three present the story of Catholic moral theology in the United States prior to Vatican II: “The Nineteenth Century,” “The Twentieth Century Before Vatican II” and “Twentieth-Century Social Ethics Before Vatican II.” Curran acknowledges that he does not have the expertise of a historian and that he has relied heavily on the work of the Redemptorist historian of moral theology Louis Vereecke, as well as many secondary sources. Historian or not, Curran has done his homework—encyclopedically, one might add.

Chapter 1 is particularly well done and will be helpful to anyone who may not be familiar with the significance of the manuals of moral theology. These textbooks for seminarians emerged after the Council of Trent in the 16th century; their purpose was to prepare future confessors for their role in the sacrament of penance. Though they were a “creative adaptation to the needs of the time,” they unfortunately gave rise to an act-centered, sin-conscious and often legalistic view of the Christian moral life. Little was said of virtue and grace; little connection was made between moral theology and Scripture, or between morality and spirituality. Appreciating this, Curran insists, is important.

The manuals are not ancient history. The moral methodology of these textbooks continues to serve as the foundation of current Catholic teachings on many medical and sexual issues. Curran’s historical over-view of the manualist tradition, its current influence and the movements for reform will be especially helpful to graduate students, upper-level undergraduates and all others who may not be familiar with this important part of the story.

The three central chapters of Curran’s history are the heart of the matter; they concern the impact on moral theology of Vatican II and of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical letter on birth control: “The Setting of Moral Theology after Vatican II,” “The Aftermath of ‘Humanae Vitae’” and “The Aftermath of Vatican II and Other Developments.”

In a masterful fashion Curran chronicles the way the moral methodology of the manuals—focused on individual acts too far removed from persons and context—was at work in the conclusion of Humanae Vitae that contraception always and everywhere is “intrinsically dishonest.” That, at least, is the judgment of those theologians whom Curran calls “revisionists.” The teaching on contraception and on several other issues, they believe, betrays physicalism, “the a priori identification of the human moral act with the physical or biological aspect of the act.” Instead, these theologians (the late Richard McCormick, S.J., and Curran himself chief among them) urge that such teachings be revised in a way that attends more to the personal, relational and contextual nature of human actions, as some of the documents of Vatican II seem to suggest. Curran’s goal in these chapters does not seem directed to converting readers from one view to another. Rather, it is understanding that he is after, and by the connections he has made with the moral methodology of the manuals he has framed the Humanae Vitae debate in a way that can promote such understanding.

Curran covers a tremendous amount of ground in these chapters, over complex and controversial territory. Some academic colleagues of Curran might wish he had given certain topics more detailed attention, for example in regard to the pros and cons of “proportionalism.” But he is to be given high marks for the way he has summarized carefully and fairly the theological arguments with which he has disagreed. His discussion of Germain Grisez’s “new natural law theory” is a good example.

The final four chapters discuss specific areas of Catholic moral theology: “Fundamental Moral Theology,” “Sexuality and Marriage,” “Bioethics” and “Social Ethics.” Though they are well connected to the chapters that precede them, they could stand alone for readers looking for an overview of these areas of Catholic moral theology subsequent to Vatican II. These chapters resemble the “Notes on Moral Theology” published annually in Theological Studies, providing a clear and helpful overview on who, as Richard Gula notes on the book’s back cover, “has shaped this discipline, what have been its major concerns, and why we are facing the issues we do today.” Curran’s discussion of the current retrieval of “virtue ethics” (especially his discussion of Jean Porter’s works), his comments on contemporary textbooks by theologians, his summary of the works of those writing on marriage and the family, and the categories he provides for reviewing diverse approaches to Catholic social ethics are among many highlights.

I am grateful for Curran’s scholarly work in this book. As a “participant observer,” Charles Curran has chronicled history fairly and clearly—no small accomplishment for someone whose own voice has been such an important part of the story.

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David Pasinski
10 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this fine review of this comprehensive work which is a pinnacle for a faith-filled and humble theologian who has suffered in service to the Church. We would all be better thinkers in this field if we read this and many other works by Fr. Curran reflecting and expanding upon his great mentor Bernard Haring and esteemed older, deceased colleague, Richard McCormick. Keep us thinking, Father, about our heritage and challenge. We need your voice!


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